By Zulmilena Then
Zulmilena Then was one of the recipients of the 2020 American Express Aspire Award.
One day, I had a dream where I was in danger. Like in a horror movie, I screamed for help, but my voice didn’t come out. I was surprised. I tried again, but I was mute. It felt distressing and exhausting trying to use my voice to be rescued and not heard. In the waking state, this is the same feeling I felt as a Brown woman advocating preservation as a way to protect my Black and Brown childhood neighborhood of East New York from disappearing under a New York City rezoning plan.
When I testified in front of New York City officials to save our historical gems (in the name of preserving our people, community, and culture), it fell on deaf ears. In 2016, when they approved the rezoning plan without a real historical preservation agenda, it felt like a gut punch. They had recognized some historical treasures in my ‘hood,’ but they didn’t step up to protect them. They knew there were irreversible consequences a deliberate upzoning would cause.
However, when I spoke in public, my community heard me. Every time I stood up, I gained new friends, supporters, and some became members of Preserving East New York (PENY), the preservation advocacy group I founded. After our defeat by the rezoning approval, we rose to power with an educational plan to teach our community why preservation in the ‘hood’ matters. And since 2015, we’ve been connecting people to the neighborhood. We believe every block has a story beyond the negative portrayal in the media, and historic preservation allows us to change the neighborhood’s narrative. Through our advocacy and programs we show the other side of our resilient community through walking tours, workshops, and social events to celebrate people’s stories and the historic spaces that make our neighborhood unique, All of which unveils the power of preservation.
Then 2020 Happened
While last year felt apocalyptic, the events of 2020 and the pandemic shook, shifted, and shaped the notion of how the nation should be moving forward. This past year gave some a 20/20 vision of the deep racist roots embedded within this country’s systems. It led some people, organizations, and governments to look inward and reevaluate themselves and their structures for a more just, equitable, and inclusive environment.
For the rest of us, Black and Brown, nothing has changed. The year 2020 just became a bright yellow highlighter of the struggles ever-present within our communities. As health disparities, police brutality, joblessness, homelessness, and food insecurity continuously ravaged Black and Brown neighborhoods—with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating these realities and reflecting the country’s structural racism—our advocacy work came to a halt. Historic preservation took a back seat as our neighborhoods’ focus shifted in addressing these major priorities for preserving our people’s lives. Before we say buildings matter, we boldly say Black Lives Matter! Because if we don’t have our people, then who are we saving the buildings for?
We’ll Be Back (In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Voice)
The people in power do not look like us; therefore, they have not favored us. Black and Brown neighborhoods have always pleaded to be heard to the point of exhaustion, and we are tired.
Black spaces and infrastructure in our communities struggled to receive protection under landmark laws because New York City has not invested in them. This disinvestment mirrors what is happening locally and nationally with members of the Black and Brown Community.
The fact that PENY exists says a lot. We created this group to guard and protect our neighborhood from destruction in the name of “progress.” Our name “Preserving East New York” is in gerund purposely to emphasize continuous action to protect our community from systems that target Black and Brown neighborhoods for failure. But hopefully, with the internal work people, organizations, and governments are promising to do to understand their role in racism—and how to help dismantle it—the road to success for Black and Brown communities will start looking much open and less like an obstacle course.
April 2021 will mark five years since the passage of the East New York rezoning plan. Since then, we’ve been patiently building a coalition of preservationists of color, while also gaining supporters and allies online and in the real world. While new buildings have risen to new heights not seen before in East New York, thankfully the historic buildings acknowledged by the city as landmark worthy are still standing. And before their unprotected status dooms their fate, PENY and the community will be knocking on the city’s doors (literally and metaphorically) to request the protection of the remaining historic gems.
This time, they will hear my voice because I’m bringing my community with me.
Zulmilena Then is a proud Brooklynite, organizer and preservationist working as Weeksville Heritage Center’s Preservation Manager by day and working on PENY magic with her group by night and days off. Follow PENY’s journey on social media.